Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Midnight's Children

Well Professor Goswami, I finally did it, just in time for your class on nationalism. You assigned me Salman Rushdie's classic Midnight's Children to read for my World Cultures India class when I was a freshman, during my first semester. I admit that I read everything else that was assigned, but this book I could not finish. I only got to page 156 and then stopped. It was too hard to follow, the language was too wild to comprehend. I knew the background of what was going on, from what I had picked up over the previous years about India, but still the story of the main character and his family were lost on me.

I like to read. All sorts of things. Midnight's Children was the only book I have started and not finished, besides James Fenimore Cooper's Deerslayer. I bought that one in a thrift store and desperately wanted to be able to like it since it was a founding document in the development of American literature, but was unable to do so. However since I never paid that much for it, and Mark Twain disliked it, I never felt so bad about finding the book a waste of good paper and shelf space.

However, Midnight's Children was a book that has always weighed on my conscience for not finishing. Unlike the Deerslayer, it is internationally acclaimed, considered one of the great works of postcolonial literature. Time magazine named it one of the best 100 novels to be published since the magazine came out. It won the Booker Prize for literature, and then another one for being the best book of the first twenty five years of the prize's existence. Of course such accolades do make a book worth reading. But they do make it worth looking into.

I know I was not alone in completing the book, as most of the people in my class probably never started it. My Teaching Assistant was a big fan of the novel and kept telling us that it was hard to get into but that it got better as it went along. It took for two and a half years until I got around to finishing it, but thanks to the copious amounts of free time on my family's recent vacation to Niagara Falls, I was able to do so.

At first I ran into the same troubles that had prevented me from finishing the novel. The narration shifts abruptly from realism to fantasy, from past to present, in addition, the narrator often will switch from talking about himself in the 1st and then the 3rd person. I think this time I was better prepared for the work, having read so much experimental literature and works falling under the term of "magical realism." So I had the patience to achieve the understanding of what was going on. Still there were difficulties until I got to the birth of Saleem Sinai and the country of India, which happen simultaneously.

This is where the novel really begins, as it is centered on his life, the path that India takes as a country, and the lives of the other "Midnight Children," all born at the same time as him and able to telepathically communicate with him. Before this event, we get the background of the family, but I feel much of it is unnecessary detail, the kind of stories that writers like to throw in to reinforce the world that they have created. However I felt such tales could have been reserved for later, since they didn't correspond well with the history of what was going on in India at the time, which is the main support for the rest of the story and which makes it interesting.

Once the history of India and Saleem get going, then things are much more interesting to read. The effect of the partition on his family, war with Pakistan, political infighting, divisions within the radical left as experienced by the country's magicians, the liberation of East Pakistan (Bangladesh)as seen by Saleem, and the rise of Indira Gandhi and the Emergency she declared in the late 1970s are what drew me to the story. Saleem's digressions and descriptions needed the history of the subcontinent to focus themselves.

I think here is one of the themes of the novel, perhaps accidentally expressed, that one's life may not have much of a story associated with it unless it is wrapped up with greater historical struggle. Of course this message is subverted by a contrary one that states that individuals can through inadvertent willpower shape the course of countries and give them their stories as reflections of their own problems with themselves or those around them.

Overall it was an enjoyable read. It can be compared favorably with Marquez's Hundred Years of Solitude (the greatest book ever written if you are a Latin American Studies major). Both use language in a superb way, navigating between the divisions of poetry and prose to stich together new forms of meaning and expression of the human condition. I think Marquez's book does a better job of developing the plot and characters, but Rushdie ties the hsitory of his country in much better, turning the subject of history itself into a magical experience, which as a history major, I can appreciate.